All forms of stress in your life contribute to or accumulate in the same bucket. For simplicity, this is referenced as the stress bucket.
What is the stress bucket?
The stress bucket model (brabban and turkington 2002) demonstrates how stress works. It helps us to understand our current levels of stress, reflect upon our coping strategies and improve our wellbeing.
Imagine you have a bucket. The size of your stress bucket relates to your level of vulnerability. The bigger the bucket, the less vulnerable you are to stress. The smaller the bucket, the more vulnerable you are to stress. Personal stress capacity, or bucket size, varies from person to person based on numerous things of which genetics is one.
As the bucket fills up with stress, it shows our capacity to cope.
Our tap relates to our coping strategies which help relieve stress. Our tap works well when we employ good coping mechanisms. If we fall into bad habits and apply bad coping mechanisms, our tap stops working effectively.
Our bodies have both a specific response to each specific stressor we encounter (for example, if you stress your muscles with weight training, they get bigger and stronger), and a general response to EVERY stressor we encounter. This general stress response is met by your immune system and nervous system ramping up their activity to protect you from the stress you’re under.
Unfortunately, your nervous system and immune system, just like your muscles, can give out if you place demands on them for too prolonged a period of time (chronic stress), or if you place too high of demands on them all at once (a very large acute stressor). This is noted in the above illustration regarding the bucket overflowing and problems developing as a result.
Since all stressors accumulate in the same bucket, everything (both physical and psychological stress) contributes, based on how large each stressor is. And that’s why it is important to not undertake a demanding training program and/or diet when life stress is high.
If you’re already pushing your immune and nervous systems to the brink, adding the stress of harder training and a calorie deficit makes you more likely to “spill over the edge” and overwhelm those systems. This is especially true the leaner you get as a cutting phase progresses along.
And when those systems are overwhelmed, that’s when bad stuff can start to happen. Muscle and tendon recovery rates slow down, meaning you’re more likely to get injured. Even worse, as those systems become overwhelmed and immune function drops, you become substantially more likely to get sick, as pathogens of all sorts have an easier time overwhelming your body’s depleted defenses. Psychologically, a lowered sense of well-being and increased rate of irritability begin to manifest.
And in consideration of physique goals, it simply makes it harder to gain muscle and/or lose fat (which, relative to the rest of the potential consequences, should be the least of your concerns).
For those basic reasons, it may not be advisable for certain individuals to take on a cutting diet until stress levels and prior metabolic adaptations are addressed.
Unfortunately, stress is an unavoidable part of life, so the bucket is going to fill up in response to stress whether we like it or not. In this case, knowledge is power and “listening to our body” can be of benefit in self-regulating and avoiding negative consequences related to stress.
Stress engages the sympathetic nervous system or fight-or-flight response. To empty the bucket and keep from having an overflow it is important to active the parasympathetic nervous system or rest-and-digest response. I have written about this before, but some key components are to address sleep, limiting alcohol or other toxins to the body, spending time outside in the sun, going for walks, etc.
Regarding dietary regimens or training plans, it is also smart to know when you need to take a break. A couple days, or even a week off, won’t be as impactful as having a negative impact from too much stress and/or incurring an injury.